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After a Fraught History, Some Tribes Finally Have the Power to Rethink ‘Commodity Foods’


People from a number of different tribes began sharing the T-shirts, and, for a while, Shellenberger, a Yakama artist and archaeologist, couldn’t print enough.

Jon Shellenberger modeling one of his shirts from Native Anthro. (Photo courtesy of Jon Shellenberger.)

To outsiders, wearing this kind of hardship on your chest might seem odd. The graphics on the labels, which read, “U.S. inspected and passed by Department of Agriculture,” are not exactly appetizing. But for those who grew up eating commodity foods, commonly known in Native America as “commods,” the nostalgia they evoked made the $20 shirts especially popular.

“[Commodity foods] are pretty close to my heart,” said Shellenberger. “They’re the building blocks of Native soul food. Our relatives didn’t always have money, but they made food [from commodity foods] with love. I think a lot about our grandmas, our moms, and our aunties. During COVID, [commodity foods] resonated with people more because we were thinking about our loved ones more than ever before.”

That’s one perspective. Others see commodity foods as part of a long legacy of destruction of Indigenous food sovereignty by the U.S. government. And that critical view shows up in the work of artists responding to the last half-century of Native life.

“[Commodity foods] are pretty close to my heart. They’re the building blocks of Native soul food. Our relatives didn’t always have money, but they made food [from commodity foods] with love.”

Muscogee Creek and Citizen Potawatomi artist Daniel McCoy, Jr.’s work has another perspective. In “Insulin Holocaust,” he paints a psychedelic nightmare scene of sweets, junk food, commodity foods, and syringes swirling around two overweight Natives. It’s a commentary on the addictive nature of highly processed American foods and its effect on Indigenous people.

John Hitchcock uses multiple printing methods to layer toy Indians, targets, and war paraphernalia on top of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) label edited to read “Crusade,” “Terminal,” and “Progress.” In these prints, the Comanche and Kiowa artist questions the quality of commodity foods after losing his grandparents to cancer.

“I ate that food as a kid,” Hitchcock said. “The food itself, back then, was high in saturated fats and contributed a lot to the health problems we have today.”

Commodity foods come from the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), a USDA program, and they have a legacy that includes government control, poverty, and health disparities, as well as creativity, and Native resilience.

Now, the FDPIR program is in the midst of an important transformation. In recent years, tribes have gained access a much wider variety of fresh foods—far beyond the limited number of commodity foods than can be found on Shellenberger’s T-shirts. And a handful of tribes have recently received authorization to take control of the what foods are available through the program—and who produces them—as they work toward food sovereignty in their communities.

A Complex History

Commodity foods and the FDPIR are often seen as the latest incarnation of a violent and inequal historical relationship between tribes and the federal government.

The program, which started in the 1970s, doesn’t have a clear tie to the notorious rations the government provided tribes after they forced them into designated areas—often far from home and undesirable land—and took away their traditional ways of living of hunting, gathering, and eating. Rations included ingredients like flour, beef, coffee, and sugar that were foreign to tribal people. Some shipments of food arrived rotten and moldy. Many Native people suffered from malnutrition, illness, and starvation.

Commodity foods and the FDPIR are often seen as the latest incarnation of a violent and inequal historical relationship between tribes and the federal government.

The FDPIR program, on the other hand, started when it was authorized in the Food Stamp Act. This gave Native people living in rural reservations an alternative to the food stamp program, which required participants to shop in grocery stores that required as much as a full day of travel to access.

Today, more than more than 25 percent of all Native Americans receive some type of federal food assistance and FDPIR serves 276 tribes across the country. In 2019, there were over 83,000 people enrolled in the program, which cost $153 million. And the type and quality of the food offered through the program has changed radically in the last four and a half decades.

“Decades ago, that open food market wasn’t as robust,” said James Abraham, branch chief of community nutrition programs in the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service Southwest regional office. “So we had to contract with third party purchasers who purchased and packaged almost specifically for USDA.”

If, say, a small canning company owner got wind that the USDA was looking to buy tons of canned carrots and peas, the owner would make a deal with the USDA and fulfill the order, says Abraham.

As the American food market became more robust and populated by industrial powerhouses on both sides of the market, the food available to the USDA changed, too. In recent years, Abraham adds, there has been more variety and more brand-named foods available to FDPIR users.

At the Five Sandoval Indian Pueblos Food Distribution Program in Bernalillo, New Mexico, the shift is visible. The warehouse looks exactly like a grocery store, with shopping carts by the door and two checkout counters, and an array of fresh, canned, and shelf-stable foods.





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